When Other White People Attack You

When Other White People Attack You

Note to my white self…

Today another white person verbally attacked you for supporting black people and their concerns.

I’m glad.

In our present white supremacist society, being attacked for supporting black people and their concerns is a requirement for a racially-conscious white person.  Those who avoid challenging racial stereotypes, racist narratives and acts give tacit approval to such ugliness.  Silence is not politeness or peacemaking.  If you have not been attacked for your support of black people, you are no better than the white bystanders at a lynching.

Today another white person called you a racist for supporting black people and their concerns.

Good.

In our present white supremacist society, being accused of being racist by another white person is the best evidence of your abandonment of white supremacy.  Those calling you racist are accusing you of disloyalty and betrayal.  Your solidarity with black people is a threat to the white solidarity that under-girds a white supremacist society.  Remember, in the Jim Crow South, the only person hated more than an “uppity” black person was a white “n***er lover.”

Today another white person criticized you for making everything about race.

Wonderful.

In our present white supremacist society, everything is about race.  You did not make it that way.  That was established and institutionalized hundreds of years ago.  What they are critiquing is your willingness to see and acknowledge this reality.  White supremacist society is most effective when it is invisible; when accepted as normative.  Your identification of all the ways in which society is racist forces other white people to face the ugliness.

Today another white person accused you of self-loathing, of hating your identity as a white person, of living a guilt-ridden life.

Untrue.

In our present white supremacist society, the ones who should feel guilty are NOT those who are advocating for black people and their concerns.  It is those who don’t.  You know one of the benefits of advocating for black people and their concerns has been your own emancipation from a system built on the loathing and hatred of others.  Freed of the necessity of sustaining your privilege and the system which upholds it, you can interact with others more authentically, acknowledging your shared humanity.

Today another white person warned you that your advocacy for black people and their concerns inspires other white people to be more racist.

Ignore them.

In our present white supremacist society, black people and those who advocate for them will always be blamed for the violence and abuse they experience.  Always challenge this narrative.  It is no different than the wife abuser who claims he wouldn’t have to hit his wife if she didn’t provoke him.  The violence and abuse of a white supremacist society is intended to suppress and punish all those who challenge its power.  Your advocacy does not inspire this violence.  It does force the white supremacist system to apply this violence to white people and creates a dissonance in that system.  If enough white people create this dissonance, the white supremacist system will begin to disintegrate.

Today another white person accused you – when it comes to race – of being the problem.

You are.

In our present white supremacist society, the problem is not black people advocating for their own concerns.  The system has successfully ignored, suppressed and silenced black people for four hundred years.  What the system fears most is what happened in 1860 and 1960, when black and white people united to dismantle significant aspects of a white supremacist society.  The biggest problem for a white supremacist society is when whites abandon it.

Today another white person heard or read your advocacy for black people and their concerns.

Don’t stop.

In our present white supremacist society, white people are most likely to be moved by the words of another white person.  Your advocacy calls into question their apathy.  Your voiced concerns highlight their silence.  Your honesty exposes their timidity.  Don’t focus on those who attack you.  Focus on those who are quietly listening and watching you.  You may be the inspiration for them to finally abandon their complicity and help create a multi-cultural society in all of its beauty and complexity.

Today another white person attacked you.

Be glad

In our present white supremacist society, this means they didn’t spend that same time and effort attacking a black person.  These attacks will also help you appreciate what black people experience every day.  Your experience of abuse is a brief glimpse from a speeding train.  The abuse black people experience is like being tied to the tracks and being crushed by that same train again and again and again.  Your solidarity with black people will require some pain.

It’s the least you can do.

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How White Parents Teach Racism

How White Parents Teach Racism

When my wife and I – two white parents – mention our conversations with our twelve year old black daughter, Ella, about America’s historic exploitation and abuse of black people, or systemic racism, or how to recognize and respond to racist words or actions, or how to interact with police officers, or how to avoid people, places or situations that might be dangerous for her as a black girl, we receive conflicting responses from black and white parents.  Black parents almost always tell us they had these same conversations with their children two or three years before we spoke with Ella.  White parents nearly always criticize us, arguing she is too young for such conversations, that we should have waited two or three years.  Both black and white parents question our parenting.

Who is right?  Are we damaging our daughter by poorly preparing her to navigate life as a black person or are we – as some white people suggest – indoctrinating her into racial suspicion and animosity?  Fortunately, the science on this subject is fairly conclusive.  When it comes to discussions about race, too early is better than too late.  Children become aware of the physical differences we identify as racial by the age of four.  Children are not color blind.  They notice differences and inquire about them.  Most white parents can recall some point when their preschooler asked, “Why is that man’s skin black?”  Unfortunately, most white parents respond to their children’s natural curiosity about race with embarrassment, discomfort or even scolding.  The message for white children is clear – noting or talking about race is taboo.

Even those white parents who try to address their children’s curiosity often do their children a disservice.  Often, progressive white parents are encouraged to tell their white children that “the color of someone’s skin doesn’t matter, that everyone is really the same.”   However, in our culture, this is wishful thinking at best and an outright deception at worst.  The color of someone’s skin matters in nearly every aspect of our society. Teaching our children to be color blind ignores their natural curiosity about racial differences and inhibits their ability to openly acknowledge and discuss racial conflicts.

While this behavior by white parents is usually defended as an attempt to “wait until a more appropriate age to discuss racism,” scientific research suggests assumptions and values about race are usually entrenched in children by the age of nine.  Indeed, one study found many deeply troubling opinions about racial differences in children as young as the age of six.   Children learn at an early age that – within our culture – there is something negative about having black skin.  When children – black and white – are immersed in a racially charged environment, they quickly and easily pick up the racist assumptions of their culture.

Black parents understand this.  They know from experience that their children will be the targets of racist behavior at their preschools.  They have to explain why the police officer pulled over Daddy while he was driving or why the security guard followed Mommy around the department store or why the white person yelled the “N” word out the window of a passing car.  Discussions about racism are a necessity.

Unfortunately, white privilege allows white parents to postpone the difficult task of discussing issues of past and present racism.  My anecdotal evidence would suggest about a six year difference between black and white parents.  What black children learn at six, white children are “too fragile” to hear.  What black teens learn at twelve comes as a surprise to most white young adults.  What blacks understand as they enter adulthood is already being disregarded by young white parents and the cycle repeats. White privilege allows white parents to avoid the difficult task of teaching their children how to navigate our present culture as an anti-racist person.  More damning, it perpetuates a racist double standard where black children have to be taught what white parents think inappropriate and damaging for their own children.

This racist double standard is insidious. Initially, when white parents would challenge our conversations with Ella, I had my doubts.  Was I being a good parent?  Was I damaging my daughter?  Surely protecting her from the harsh realities of racism was preferable.  After much thought and reading, I’ve concluded I’m not the parent who needs to adjust my behavior.  If the scientific studies are correct, most white parents – if they ever have a discussion with their children about race – do so after it is too late, when most of the negative racial stereotypes and assumptions have already become deeply embedded in their children.

Here is the sad truth.  By postponing discussions around racism with their children, white parents nearly insure that racist prejudice and stereotypes will be passed on to their children.  In the musical “South Pacific,” one of the songs suggests “racism has to be carefully taught.”  That is simply untrue.  Racism doesn’t have to be taught at all.  White and black children absorb it simply by growing up in America.  The difference in the education of white children and black children is that the parents of black children are trying to counter that indoctrination while parents of white children are tacitly accepting this twisting of their children’s minds.  The easiest way for a white parent in America to teach their children to be racist – ironically – is to never mention or address race.

I’ve decided next time a white person suggests one of my conversations with my daughter, Ella, is premature or inappropriate, I’m not going respond defensively, justifying my need to educate her about racism.  I’m going to push back.

I’m going to reply, “If you talked to your white children or grandchildren about racism sooner, maybe I wouldn’t have to talk to my black daughter about it at all.”

Things I Didn’t Know

Things I Didn’t Know

Nine years ago, I began to slowly awaken to my racial prejudices and white privilege.  It was a rude awakening.  During the past three years, I’ve blogged about that journey from racial ignorance.  Recently, someone asked me what have been the biggest surprises along the way.  What do I know now that I didn’t know before?  What follows is a short list of some of my bigger epiphanies and the posts where I shared these revelations.

I didn’t know that for a short period after the Civil War black people made significant progress in political and economic terms.  I didn’t know we had black US Senators and Representatives, that many southern states had black legislatures, that black literacy rates skyrocketed and blacks make significant economic gains.  I didn’t know about the reign of terror necessary for whites to end this moment of possibility, murdering thousands of black men, women and childrenA Splendid Failure.

I didn’t know lynching is a term that covers a whole range of violent acts, usually beginning with cutting off the victim’s ears, nose and sexual parts, burning of body parts or the entire person, hanging the body, dragging the body through the streets, and usually depositing the mutilated corpse in the middle of a black neighborhood.  I didn’t know this often happened in a picnic atmosphere, with white children encouraged to watch.  I didn’t know that in the hundred years after 1865 a lynching took place once a week somewhere in America.  Avoiding the L Word.

I didn’t know very few enslaved persons lived on plantations like those glorified in white literature and media.  Most enslaved persons lived and worked in conditions more like those practiced by the Nazis in their work camps, where the goal was to squeeze the most labor possible out of a person before their death.  Enslaved adults seldom lived past the age of thirty.  I didn’t know slavery in the United States was industrial and enslaved persons were systematically tortured.   I didn’t know the term “slave” objectified enslaved persons and allowed white people – in the past and now – to avoid seeing them as human beings.  Whitewashing Slavery.

I didn’t know that allowing enslaved persons to have wives and families was a means of control and profit rather than a sign of humanity.  Enslaved persons with families were less likely to try to escape or rebel against their treatment.  Their families were hostages.  Additionally, one of the ways for slave owners to increase their wealth was to sell their slaves.  I didn’t know, in the 1850s, the chief export of the state of Virginia was enslaved persons.  Slavery As America’s Original Sin.

I didn’t know scholars and sociologists believe nearly 100% of enslaved women were sexually assaulted.  I didn’t know how much the free access of white men to black bodies was part of white culture.  Some sociologists estimate 50% of all children of slaves had a white father.  This kind of sexual aggression continued throughout Jim Crow.  I didn’t know the conviction of a white man for raping a black woman was extremely rare before 1960.  When Rape Was Legal.

I didn’t know that – in some ways – the years after the end of slavery were worse than during slavery.  I didn’t know vagrancy laws allowed white people to “arrest and convict” nearly any black person and enslave them.  Thousands of black families were torn apart as fathers were sent off to “serve their time” in factories and on farms.  The death rate at these prison camps was as high as 50%, meaning that the penalty for “vagrancy” in the south was often death.  Worse Than Slavery.

I didn’t know black people began asking for reparations in 1864 and that no economist questions the tremendous wealth enslaved persons created for white people.  I didn’t know lynching was one means of squashing any discussion of reparations.  I didn’t know the New Deal and the GI Bill both systemically excluded black men and their families.  I didn’t know black leaders have been asking for reparations for generations. I didn’t know white resistance to this reasonable request has always used the same racist rhetoricHow To Know If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question.

There is so much I didn’t know.  I didn’t know the obstacles that my black daughter will face as she navigates a world while black.  I didn’t know how deeply rooted racism is in every American institution and practice.  I didn’t know how many times every day I benefit from white privilege.  I didn’t know how pervasive white supremacy continues to be, barely hidden under the surface of our culture.  I didn’t know how often our nation has elected a president who blatantly sympathized with these racist sentiments.  Trump is simply the most recent.

But none of these epiphanies qualify as my biggest surprise.

Most of all, I didn’t know how resistant white people would be to hearing and knowing our history, to acknowledging present injustices.  Again and again, I have encountered white people who deny, rationalize or excuse this history, who pretend all is well.  They insist that whatever happened in the past has no bearing on our present racial divisions.  While most white people seem perfectly willing to celebrate countless events and persons from US history, when it comes to anything that has to do with racial oppression, we do all in our power to change the subject, shift the focus and obscure the facts.   Ugly White History Month

My biggest surprise has not been what white people don’t know, but what white people don’t want to know.  I didn’t know how important this militant and willful ignorance is to sustaining white supremacy.  It is nearly impossible to maintain an ideology of white superiority if one truly examines the inhumanity and brutality of white behavior toward people of color for the last 400 yearsI didn’t know how absurd arguments for white supremacy truly were.  White Inferiority.

There is so much I still don’t know.

I don’t know how we dismantle a system of white supremacy, when most white people are perfectly happy with the status quo.  I don’t know how we educate white people about the history of racial oppression when they refuse to acknowledge the facts.  I don’t know how we can possibly heal as a nation until white people admit past injury and seek forgiveness.  I don’t know if writing about this makes much difference.

I do know this.

Writing, discussing and even learning about racism is worthless, if it doesn’t change our behavior, opinions and passions.  Dismantling racism will require a systematic reconstruction of every aspect of American life. It will require white people like me becoming radical and vocal advocates for reparations and reconciliation, demanding the institutions we control and inhabit act differently, surrendering power and resource to those from whom we robbed of this power and resource.   What we attempt will be revolutionary.

I do not know if we will be successful.

I do know I want to try.

Anything But Racism

Anything But Racism

Note to my white self…

You did it again.

You made a racist assumption and then tried to justify it.

You assumed the black man who came to your hotel room was a member of the cleaning crew and not the manager.  That you did so is understandable. You’ve been enculturated to assume white people are managers and black people are service workers.  This bias is so ingrained that it would have taken a great deal of self-awareness to avoid that racist assumption.

However, my frustration is not with your mistake.  You may never be free of that prejudice.  My irritation is with how quickly and easily you tried to justify your behavior as “anything but racism.”  You told your wife you made that assumption because the cleaning personnel were scheduled to arrive, but that isn’t the truth and you know it.  It took you several days to finally admit your assumption was racist.  You saw a black face and assumed the person was there to serve you.  Though you immediately realized your error, you didn’t acknowledge it or apologize.  You pretended it didn’t happen.

You should know better.

How many times have you pointed out some obvious racial abuse, discrimination or bias and had your white peers offer an explanation other than racism?  This has been frustrating to you and is doubly frustrating to people of color.  In a nation where black people were considered property for over 200 years and where for another 100 years politicians, scientists and priests joined forces to propagate theories of black inferiority, we can assume the most likely explanation for any negative experience of a person of color in the United States is racism.  Logically, in such a cultural milieu, we should ALWAYS assume racism until the evidence proves otherwise.

Unfortunately, that is not how it works in America.  Totally ignoring hundreds of years of societal and cultural evidence, you and so many other white Americans quickly and effortlessly credit the negative experiences and outcomes of people of color as “anything but racism.”  What you did to this black hotel manager is repeated millions of times every day in the United States. This knee jerk response permeates white culture, allowing white people to deny, defend and obscure countless acts of racial bias.  Racism is always the explanation of last resort.

When the black man is killed by the white police officer at a traffic stop, society and the legal system bend over backwards to credit every possible explanation other than racism.  When blacks are in prison at much higher percentages than whites, we examine every other social factor – school attendance, single parent household, income disparity, lead paint exposure – before we conclude racism might explain the disparity.  When we make unfair assumptions about black people, white people inevitably blame the victim and suggest their behavior rather than our prejudice caused our response.  You thought, “If the manager of the hotel had worn a name tag, I wouldn’t have assumed he was the cleaning crew” rather than “If the man had been white, I would have assumed he was the manager.”

It is this unwillingness of white people to confront and address our often blatant racism that is at the core of our lack of progress on racial reconciliation.  It is impossible to address assumptions we refuse to acknowledge.  We cannot eliminate prejudices we pretend don’t exist.  We cannot focus on treating people equitably when our chief concern is defending our lack of bias.

Racial reconciliation begins with white Americans acknowledging racism as the MOST LIKELY explanation for the negative experiences of the people of color in our communities and lives.  Of course, life is complicated and most situations are multi-faceted.  Obviously, racism is seldom the only factor in any given situation.  Now that we’ve demonstrated our capacity for reasoned discernment, we need to commit to thoroughly examining the racial dimensions of everything that happens in our society BEFORE moving on to other possible explanations.

I know it is hard work.  I know it is embarrassing.

None of us like to admit our innate racism.

However, once we do, we can more quickly name our responses for what they are – racist – and move on to the more important work of changing our behavior and our world.  We can catch ourselves quickly enough to do what I wish I’d done at that hotel and apologized.

It was not his fault I assumed he was the cleaning crew.

It was mine.

Misunderstanding My Black Friendships

Misunderstanding My Black Friendships

My first encounter with a black person was at the age of 14 when I entered high school.  Up until then – while it probably occurred – I have no memory of meeting a black person.  In 1974, when I was a freshman in high school, our town – like many in rural America then and now – was nearly 100% white.  Our high school had a single black student – Michael Johnson – whose name I remember precisely because he was unique.

This is what I remember about Michael.  He was a good basketball player, one of the stars of our team.  He was quiet, polite, neatly dressed and always smiling.  If I ever said anything other than “hello” to Michael, I don’t recall.  Indeed, I don’t remember anyone at our school ever saying much to Michael other than “hello” and “good game.”  When we graduated, I have no idea what became of Michael.  Indeed, I haven’t thought much about him until recently.

This week, I was trying to determine when I first had a black friend.  I was acquainted with a few black students at college, but with no one I would call friend.  I interacted more closely with a couple of black peers in grad school, but mostly in the classroom.  I eventually made a couple of closer friendships in my early 30’s through our church, where a few black folk attended.  I would have called Rick my first close black friend.  He and I had lunch periodically, attended movies and worked on church projects together. His family had dinner at our home.

Looking back, Rick and I never spoke about racism.  I never asked him about his experiences as a black man in America.  I treated him as if he wasn’t black, as if the color of skin was irrelevant to our relationship, even while thinking our friendship proof of my enlightenment.  I was proud of having such a close black friend.  Rick was humble, generous, funny and always smiling.

Always smiling.

Over the last few years, I have finally developed a few genuine relationships with black men and women.  These are relationships in which we talk about race.  Sometimes they allow me to see and hear their rage, sadness, frustration and even their suspicion of me.  They challenge me about my words, attitudes and actions.  They have helped me understand something I never understood – I never really knew Rick.

Michael and Rick were black people operating in largely white environments where it wasn’t wise or safe for them to reveal their true personality.  Michael may have been quiet, polite and happy, but I suspect that behavior was more expediency than transparency.  I wonder what he was like when he attended his family reunion.  Rick may have been humble, generous, and funny, but I suspect he’d also learned how to make white people like me comfortable.

Eventually, Rick and I drifted apart.  Looking back, I worry much of that growing distance was about my discomfort.  I remember thinking and saying that Rick had changed.  Did he really change or did I finally see the more authentic Rick and find that less palatable?

When we talk about the racial divide in America, we need to understand how few genuine relationships between black and white people actually exist.  A recent study found 80% of white Americans do not have a significant relationship with a person of color.  In the rural towns where I grew up, the figure was 100%.  But, even in urban settings, our neighborhoods, schools, parks, churches and social institutions are largely segregated.  There are few genuinely organic opportunities for black and white people to become friends.

This leaves many white people open to a gross misunderstanding.  Most of our encounters with black people are on “white turf” where black people present not as they are, but as they know we wish them to be – quiet, polite, humble, generous and always smiling.  Paradoxically, most of our encounters with black people from a distance – through media or external observation – are of black people who are loud, assertive, self-possessed, proud and sometimes angry.  What we don’t understand is many of those black people are the same people.  It never occurs to us that black people are as emotionally complex as white people.

We misunderstand because – when it comes to race – we’ve never had to present two versions of ourselves to the world.  We are free to be our white selves in each and every situation and encounter.  This white privilege means I can present my true self to the police officer, to the judge, to my teacher, to my employer and to my friends without fear of consequence.  I can be my white self when I encounter black people, aware that if anyone is going to have to adjust their behavior, it will not be me.  They must make me comfortable.

This reality is central to our present racial divides.  Those black people who bravely present as themselves often face censure, threat and attack.  Therefore, most black people continue to operate in two worlds, of which only one allows them to be genuine.  Many black people allow us to think we’re friends, presenting whatever they think we need to be comfortable.  In the present racial climate, though sad, that is a time tested strategy for survival.

While I am convinced cross-racial friendships are essential to changing our society, I am aware of who bears the most risk in that work. I deeply appreciate the black men and women who have befriended me in recent years.  I no longer see them as evidence of my enlightenment.  I see them as courageous in their trust of me.  I am also thankful for their willingness to make me uncomfortable.

They don’t always smile at me.

 

The Message Of A Touch

The Message Of A Touch

When my African American daughter was a toddler, I was amazed by how often white men and women would walk up to us and – without asking permission – touch her hair. It happened nearly every time we went out in public. When I spoke to my black friends about this odd pattern, they laughed and explained how often this happens to black people – children and adults.  More importantly, they helped me understand its roots, that at its core, this behavior represented white people’s privileged assumption that they could violate the personal space of a black person without permission or consequence.

When I spoke of this with white friends, they were always dismissive. I was accused of making a big deal about nothing. Shouldn’t I be glad that white people were responding to my daughter with interest and even affection? Why did I have to imply it was something more sinister? They refused to see this “innocent” behavior as problematic or indicative of deeper issues around privilege, racism, autonomy and respect.  Couldn’t it just be a case of natural human curiosity?

I considered that possibility.  One white woman told me of how people in Africa had wanted to touch her hair the first time she visited there.  She hadn’t found that offensive.  Of course, that argument pretends we live in a nation where black people are an unusual oddity that provokes white curiosity.  That is not the nation we live in.  We live in a nation where white people have owned black people and been able to violate their personal space at the slightest whim.  In that nation, the obvious explanation for white behavior is not curiosity, but racism and privilege.

This past week, as I’ve read the responses of white men and women to the criticism of Joe Biden’s habit of invading the personal space of the women he encountered, I’ve seen many parallels to those conversations about white people touching my daughter’s hair. Instead of hearing the genuine concern of some about questions of consent and male privilege, many are defending Joe’s behavior as “innocent” and “old school.”  Joe was just being nice.  According to these voices, the women Joe touched should be honored that such a famous man acknowledged them. Those who voice discomfort at these microaggressions are making a “big deal about nothing.”

Sigh.

Microaggressions are by their very nature “micro,” but they are small hints of something much more insidious. We don’t identify microaggressions because “they” are the issue, but because they point to something deeper and far more problematic. What Joe Biden does is NOT the equivalent of sexual harassment and assault, but IT IS the foundational assumption that makes harassment and assault so pervasive. As infamously articulated by our President, “you can grab them by the P***y and they just let you.” In our society, many men assume they do not have to ask in order to touch a woman.

What is maddening to the recipients of these microaggressions is that they often come from those who vocalize their opposition to racism and sexism.  Many demonstrate a willingness to “stand with the oppressed” until they are challenged for consciously or unconsciously participating in that systemic oppression.  Then they retreat into excuses, half apologies, mockery and feigned indignation.  “After all I’ve done for you and your cause, you accuse me!”

Joe Biden is only the latest poster child of this response.  Unfortunately, his recent spat of jokes about “how he asked permission” to touch someone suggest he really doesn’t get the deeper import of his behavior.  That he’s thinks “asking consent” is humorous suggests he doesn’t yet understand why these discussions are so important.

What Joe Biden and many others miss is that that personal autonomy and consent are not “minor” issues. They are at the heart of some of the deepest systemic inequities in our society.  We cannot hope to end racism and sexism in our society by ignoring microaggressions.  They are symptoms.  Taking these symptoms – large and small – seriously is absolutely vital if we ever hope to cure the disease.

A society where every person asks before intruding into the personal space of another is not some liberal silliness.  Adopting this standard might be the single most important step in ending racism, sexism, violence and a myriad of other human dysfunctions.  How we touch one another may be the clearest message of how we see the world.  Those who cannot acknowledge this demonstrate how deeply embedded they are in maintaining the the inequities of the status quo.

Potholes and Privilege

Potholes and Privilege

I’m tired of white, suburban people complaining about the potholes in Indianapolis.

Not because potholes aren’t a problem.  After two months of freeze and thaw, many Indianapolis streets are rutted with bone jolting potholes that can destroy a tire and ruin a car’s alignment.  I, too, wish that the city would repair these streets, but my frustration is with the inability of many white people to see the obvious – potholes are evidence of white privilege.

Indeed, the people complaining about potholes are almost always white commuters.  They drive in each day from suburban, white enclaves to work or play in Indianapolis.  They use roads they do not pay taxes to maintain.  They speed through neighborhoods of color where many cannot afford to own vehicles.  They drive big SUVs that damage the very roads they complain about.  Each night, they return to their communities of privilege.

They often say, “I’m always relieved when I finally drive out of the city and onto good roads.” They never acknowledge that “good” roads along with “good” schools, “good” neighborhoods and “good” parks are almost always roads, schools, neighborhoods and parks for white people.  Indeed, we live in a society where “good” is too often synonymous with white.  Sadly, the number of potholes on a given street is a fairly accurate indication of how many people of color live on that street.

Recently, I had to drive from the center of Indianapolis into the suburbs.  My journey began on West 10th Street in a largely black neighborhood and ended on W. 86th Street in an upper middle class white enclave.  As I drove north, I noticed the streets becoming less and less broken.  Indeed, on 86th Street, I no longer worried about potholes.  I was driving on smooth, privileged roads.  As I drove back into the city that night, I had to become more and more vigilant for potholes.

Vigilance is the opposite of white privilege.  The privileged person can navigate both streets and life without much concern.  They can expect their path to be smooth and obstacles to be removed.  When they complain, their complaints will be taken seriously and quickly addressed.  In contrast, the person of color must navigate both streets and life with careful vigilance, never certain where the potholes will be.  They can expect the way to be difficult and sometimes impassible.  They know their complaints will be ignored.  Indeed, they will be blamed for the injustices they encounter.

One of my white friends asked, “Why can’t Indianapolis maintain its streets?”  He asked his question as if the deficiency was with the city and its people, as if he played no role in the condition of the very streets he uses every day.  There was no acknowledgment that these streets were built over a hundred years ago, that the maintenance of these streets is much more expensive than those in his neighborhood, that the streets in his community aren’t used daily by people who don’t live in that community, that he never contributes to the costs of repairing these streets, and that “Indianapolis” is really code for “people of color” in his complaint.

One of the privileges of being white is the privilege of critiquing your victims. The main reason the streets of Indianapolis are so potholed is because sixty years ago racist white people fled in mass to the suburban counties to build new homes, streets, businesses and parks in white enclaves.  They left economically struggling families of color with their old houses, old streets, old businesses and old parks.  The potholed streets are the streets they discarded.

For this reason, their complaints ring hollow and their pride in their streets is unjust. They act as if their good suburban streets were built the same year, deal with the same traffic and have the same resources for maintenance as those potholed city streets.  They pretend their privileged streets are indicators of their moral superiority.  They brag that they take care of their streets.

That, of course, is not community pride.  It is racist bullshit.

This is problem with white privilege.  It allows us to justify inequity, to ignore injustice, to blame our victims and to sustain the pretense of moral superiority.  If we can to that with potholes, can you imagine what we do on more important issues?

As with most things in our society, we who are white have a choice.  The next time we hit a pothole we can complain of that street and its inhabitants or we can examine our role and responsibility in the condition of those streets.  Maybe if we can learn to do that with potholes, we can eventually graduate to examining the privilege in our schools, neighborhoods, businesses and parks.

At the very least, maybe we can use hitting potholes as a moment to reflect on our white privilege.